Conservation Hero: Jean Wiener

For nearly a quarter century, a local marine biologist has been fighting for Haiti's environment. It's finally paying off.

It’s high noon on a hot, Caribbean island when a young boy arrives at a stretch of coast. He doesn’t play in the sand or splash in the water. He just takes in the incredible scene: Trash, a foot deep, as far as he can see. Plastic bottles, busted television sets, shoes, car tires—you name it, it’s there. Ripped clothing washes up into rippled piles like seaweed. It smells like a seashore—with rude overtones of human feces and urine. Nobody is in the water but for a few fisherman. All they ever haul in is garbage or dead, decomposed fish, poisoned by the pollution.

This is the child’s local shore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The impression is still raw 45 years later. “It’s so literally disgusting with trash and oil and… everything you can imagine,” says Jean Wiener, now 51. But even as a child, he knew it didn’t have to be that way. His family would travel an hour north to another beach, where he swam, snorkeled, and buried himself in the sand. Local fisherman gave him rides in their creaky wooden rowboats. “They’d come up and sell you fish and oysters,” Wiener remembers. He adored the place. But it made the disgraceful degree of filth back home unbearable. He remembers thinking, “Why—for God’s sake, we’re on a Caribbean Island—why can’t we just go to the closest shore and swim?”

In fact, it would be two decades before someone would do anything about the problem—and that someone would be him. Over twenty years ago, Wiener set out, alone, on an almost impossible journey—to revive the seas and coasts of one the most dilapidated nations on Earth. His crusade would mobilize entire villages and rescue hundreds of thousands of acres of endangered corals, critical wetlands, and everything in between.

Today, thanks to Wiener’s indomitable drive, Haiti’s coasts are making a comeback, and communities throughout the country are stepping up to protect their backyards and improve their lives. No one saves any habitat alone. But if Haiti’s coasts—and their plants, animals, and people—have a hero, that man is certainly Jean Wiener.

It was the late 1970s, and while soon-to-be U.S. President Jimmy Carter was selling peanuts, Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was exporting human body parts, making millions literally converting his people into profits. Following in the footsteps of his late father and predecessor, Francois Duvalier, his own private militia kept the public in line through violence and fear. People suspected of harboring anti-government sentiments—even kids—were systematically beaten and slain in the streets, some burned alive. Tens of thousands were kidnapped and tortured. Many simply disappeared.

Meanwhile, Duvalier partied and lived the high life, on the state’s tab. He accumulated motorcycles, sports cars, a yacht—even a condo in Trump Tower—while some 80 percent of the populace lived as they still do today: in abject poverty, without shoes, toilets, or basic services like gas or electricity. Most Haitian families live not check to check, but meal to meal. And too many of their babies die before their first birthdays. The last thing on people’s minds is how to save the environment.

“It’s so literally disgusting with trash and oil and… everything you can imagine.”

—Jean Wiener

But for pre-teen Jean Wiener, life was good. “I felt safe, things were calm, quiet,” he said, referring to his middle-class upbringing. He had a bike and would ride the dirt roads—the inevitable street dog nipping at his ankles—to meet up with friends to play soccer. Or pedal out to a creek to poke around. He appreciated the electricity and water when they were flowing, missed them when they weren’t. He had the luxury to care about the environment, and to want something better.

And for good reason. Although there were less-polluted oases—places where more fortunate families like Wiener’s would vacation—the country’s environment as a whole was in utter shambles. The problems started well before the Duvaliers. Since French colonial times, Haiti’s forests have been indiscriminately leveled; 98 percent of the trees are gone. At the same time, the country lies at the center of so-called Hurricane Alley, the warm, storm-spawning waters between Africa and the Caribbean. Relentless natural disasters (ten full-blown hurricanes in the past eleven years), on top of a long history of revolution and corrupt leaders, have wiped out Haiti’s natural areas, farmlands, infrastructure, and economy. Today, some 8 million of its 10 million people are living off a battered and beaten land and sea—with virtually no rule of law.

“Here, it’s the wild, wild West,” says Wiener. Locals mine corals and crush them to make concrete, or burn them into a powder and add water for cheap white paint. Fisherman trap basketfuls of underweight lobsters and fish—all the big ones are gone. On land, villagers hack down mangroves, the last coastal trees standing, and cook them into charcoal—a high-demand product, the main fuel used for cooking. All the while, each storm season, tens of thousands of pounds of garbage and topsoil from the denuded landscape wash into the Caribbean sea, burying seagrass beds, smothering reefs, and blocking the light that fuels the food chain.

This was the world Wiener set out to save. At 17, he left to study in the United States. He returned to Haiti in 1989, a 25-year-old marine biologist bent on making a difference.

He gave himself a fancy moniker—Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine, or FoProBiM—and within weeks was on his natal Port-au-Prince beach with an army of school kids and local fisherman. He’d convinced about 20 local businesses to donate gloves, water, and garbage bags. They collected hundreds of pounds of trash, documenting every item, and published the results in the country’s largest national newspaper, “to kind of announce our arrival,” Wiener says (even though FoProBiM was only him). This would kick off a lifelong habit of engaging people of all walks of life to solve their local problems. “You can’t do anything without the local communities being onboard,” says Wiener.

He’d spend the next several years cleaning other beaches and meeting with everyone he could—fisherman, farmers, church groups, hotel owners—to pinpoint problems, teach them about the bigger environmental issues, and rally folks into action. He also gathered research papers and reports from international scientists and institutions that had conducted projects in Haiti and then gone home with their data—creating the country’s only repository of local information on coastal marine science and resource management. He translated fisheries laws, written in French, into Creole—the only language understood by those the laws pertained to—and developed a field guide to marine life that unified terms in Creole, French, and English. He also trolled the international conservation community for funding. Heavyweights like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy took notice, and Wiener received his first grant, for $10,000, in 1994. The following year, Haiti recognized FoProBiM as an official nongovernmental organization, creating the first-ever coastal conservation institute in the country.

And so began another long list of firsts. With support from the United Nations’ scientific (UNESCO) and environmental (UNEP) arms, Wiener took to the marshes, measuring tree heights and trunk diameters of mangroves; to the sea, documenting corals and fish and gauging the health of reefs; to the air, assessing the coverage of coastal vegetation and encroaching agriculture; and even to space, using satellite imagery to pinpoint the countrywide extent of each of these ecosystems. He collected the nation’s first baseline data on seawater quality and spearheaded the first surveys of endangered sea turtles, manatees, and sea grasses. Synthesizing the data, he identified nine priority areas to be protected and restored, and he started pitching lawmakers. They didn’t see the point. “Believe it or not, on a Caribbean island nation, there is not a good understanding of the ocean and its importance to a Caribbean island nation!” Wiener says, incredulous.

So he began protecting the areas himself. He hired a right-hand man—a local fisherman still with him today—and together the duo began restoring reefs, transplanting healthy corals to degraded areas to bring them back to life. They created “coral gardens” away from reefs, to continuously sprout new specimens to bolster populations. And they built new reefs: one from 10,000 concrete blocks, and another out of 8,000 pounds of seashells. Both are thriving today.

On shore, they harvested mangrove seeds and grew seedlings offsite in makeshift nurseries. They paid some villagers to make bamboo pots, and others to plant young trees back where they belonged. “You pop them into the ground, basket and all,” explains Wiener. “The basket biodegrades, and the mangrove takes off.” The effort has bloomed into four active projects in the north. Wiener estimates that they’ve added about a million trees so far.

“Jean knows how to get things done in Haiti,” says Greg Cronin, an applied ecologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, who helped Wiener assess the potential impacts of a controversial U.S.-backed industrial park built just upstream from one of his priority sites. “He persistently pushes forward in the face of adversity.”

Indeed, by 2010, Wiener had reams of baseline data, had proven that areas could be restored, and had gotten local communities throughout the country on board with change. He’d even drafted the language for a law designating and protecting the priority sites he’d been pushing for a decade. Literally all the politicians would have to do was sign on the dotted line. He just needed the right politician.

That person came in the form of populist President Michel Martelly, elected in 2011. The horrific 2010 earthquake that rattled the world had come and gone. Haitians were hoping for a better future. And Martelly, a colorful, nationally famous musician known as “Sweet Micky,” was a breath of fresh air. “One of the priorities of [that] government was the environment, which was unheard of,” says Wiener.

Wiener pounced. With backing from the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., he systematically valuated the so-called ‘ecosystem services’ of his target habitats. For example, both mangroves and reefs serve as shelter and nurseries for fish, crabs, shrimp, and other commercially important species. They also act as first-line defenses against waves, storms, and wind. Mangroves stabilize the shoreline and trap silt from inland areas, maintaining water quality and protecting reefs as well as equally important seagrass beds. Wiener put a price on these benefits.

He concluded that the nine proposed conservation sites provide, at the very least, $9.6 billion worth of public services to Haiti annually. That’s a full two billion dollars more than the country’s entire GDP the year Martelly was elected. And that number was based on the ecosystems’ current state. Make these environments healthier, and that number would skyrocket. It was a language leaders spoke. “You have to put a dollar sign on it for them to understand,” says Wiener.


Marine Protected Areas


In a governmental blink of an eye, in July 2013, Haiti had signed into law the first marine protected area (MPA) in its 350-year history—a feat that had seemed all but impossible just a year earlier. By December, they’d banned the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, made it illegal to cut down mangroves anywhere in the country, and added another MPA. All told, nearly half a million acres of the country’s healthiest and largest expanses of reef, seagrass, and mangrove were protected.

Just like that. “It was only 23 years of work,” jokes Wiener.

The achievement made Wiener a bona fide conservation icon. President Martelly would go on to present him the first environmental award ever given in the nation’s history. Wiener would also collect awards in England and the United States.

Most recently, last April, he’d find himself on stage in front of 4,000 people in the San Francisco Opera House. There to receive the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize, or Green Nobel, he spoke to the plight of local Haitians in light of the new MPAs. “No one will protect any resource until their basic livelihood needs are met. I can guarantee you that there is nowhere in the world where there is a hungry conservationist.”

Park or no park, if Haitians are to stop burning mangroves and hunting fish, they need new livelihoods. True to form, FoProBiM is creating some. Their most ambitious project turns fisherman and charcoal makers into beekeepers. Working with a master apiarist, Wiener and his crew install hives in mangroves on the outskirts of towns and train teams of locals in beekeeping. They guide them for months, as they learn how to manage bees, harvest comb, and eventually, establish spin-off colonies. The beekeepers sell honey and comb locally and at supermarkets in the city.

Fledgling apiarists are working dozens of hives throughout the northeast, and FoProBiM is now trying to develop new income streams around soap, wax candles, and lip balm. “It’s win-win-win-win all the way around,” says Wiener. The people get a long-term, multi-faceted flow of income—and free honey for life. The mangroves get an army of people guarding them like their lives depend on it. Every fisherman that is converted gives fish that much more of a break. And more mangroves means clearer water, healthier reefs, and eventually bigger and better fish populations.

FoProBiM is helping others start fruit tree farms, and is developing a project to grow specific seaweeds from which companies extract commercial gelling and thickening agents. Wiener hopes to get folks farming oysters next year.

At the same time, his organization is hoping to spawn a new generation of local marine conservationists by co-funding the Jean Wiener Environmental Scholarship. Denver ecologist Cronin, who started his own nonprofit (Yon Sel Lanmou, or One Love) to empower local Haitian communities by making them more self-sufficient, established it last year. “When people asked me why I did it, my most succinct answer was ‘to create more Jean Wieners.’ Jean has a deep love, respect, and understanding for the marine environments of his birthplace. He has worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, for over two decades.” The first reward was presented last July to a student poised to become the first Haitian in history to earn a degree in marine conservation from a Haitian University.

Today, FoProBiM has three offices and a full-time staff of eight. They also pay people to carry out conservation and restoration. All told, FoProBiM has a hand in supporting some 2,000 people fighting for a better Haiti.

Still, says Wiener, “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done.” Innumerable inland issues affect the coasts. For example, FoProBiM recently stepped up and built a new latrine for a public school outside of Port-au-Prince. Its old one, used by 450 students as well as the general community, had long been full. With nowhere to go, everyone was using the beach as their toilet. Similar environmental “fires” need to be put out throughout the country.

In the meantime, Wiener is pushing for seven more protected areas, as well as the region’s first trans-border protected zone with the Dominican Republic. The new MPAs need to be patrolled and managed. FoProBiM’s reef and mangrove restorations need to be replicated at locations throughout the country. On top of that, the team basically needs to detour an entire coastal culture onto a new career path—at least until the fish populations bounce back.

It’s a tall order—but it always has been. Wiener doesn’t think pessimistic thoughts; his journey would have ended before it started. Wiener said it best on that stage in San Francisco, ending his acceptance speech with an anonymous quote: “The fool didn’t know it was impossible. So he did it.”

David Butvill

David Butvill is a science writer who lives in Costa Rica. He writes about science and nature (and nature’s helpers) for various magazines and the radio. He thanks his son Nikolas for constantly reminding him that it is always worth trying to make the world a better place.

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